Adrienne Crosier, a cheetah biologist for the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, holds Maggie, who was born in December. Photo by Mehgan Murphy
As the cheetah biologist for the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Adrienne Crosier is just one of the few people who have access to the new litter of five cubs that were born May 28. Crosier, who joined the Smithsonian in 2001, talks about her favorite cub and what it’s like working with six-year-old Amani, the very protective mother cheetah.
What responsibilities do you have as a cheetah biologist?
I’m responsible for the breeding program here at the Front Royal SCBI campus. I also do all of the research on the cheetahs both here and with collaborating zoos and conservation institutions in North America and southern Africa. I help make management decisions about the offspring, like which animals should come into the collection and which should go out.
How much time do you spend with the new cheetahs on a day to day basis?
We don’t spend that much time with them at all. We’ve only handled them three times. Every litter is different and every mom is different. So you have to go by what moms will tolerate it. Amani’s not excited about us being near her cubs. She moved [the cubs] as far away from us as she could get, into this really thick large clump of tall grasses, which I think is really interesting because I would anticipate that that’s a similar location they’d use in the wild.
Over time, we’ve collected some wet bedding from where the mom has gone to the bathroom. We’ve kept that and use it to rub on the cubs right before we leave that so they smell like her again.
We’re planning to get a weight on them every week. They grow very quickly so they are soon going to be out of that stage where they’re not easy to catch and handle. Probably in about eight weeks they’re going be virtually impossible to catch.
Were there any scary moments during the birth or while Amani was pregnant?
My only concern was that Amani wouldn’t have multiple cubs. Last year she had her first litter, but she had only one cub. Cheetah females can’t raise a single cub because she won’t produce enough milk. We went ahead and hand-raised that cub for two weeks and passed it on to another female who had recently had litter. My only hope when Amani was pregnant was that she’d have more than one. But the last couple of weeks of her pregnancy she got very big very quickly. That made us feel confident.
You were able to witness the whole birth. Was that your most exciting moment at the Zoo?
Amani’s pregnancy was a pretty big moment, for sure. She went into a den that had a camera and she had them during the day, which was so nice of her. She started going into labor about 10:30 AM. She actually stood up right after she gave birth to the first four and immediately turned around and cleaned them. But by number five she didn’t even stand up anymore—she must’ve been exhausted.
Do you have any favorite cubs so far?
There is one little female that is just a momma’s girl. She sticks really close to Amani and looks a lot like her. I’m pretty fond of her. But they’re all different and have different activity levels. Some are more brave or independent and some kind of wander off by themselves.
Is it true that the cubs may never be seen by the public?
We work with the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) and every species has an SSP (Species Survival Plan) associated with it. It’s a group of veterinarians, nutritionists, advisors, geneticists who help determine which animals should be at which locations and which should be breeding, and which animals are overrepresented.
There’s a very good chance these guys will leave us in two years. That is hard too, when they’re recommended to go, but we always try to play by the rules. But the reason this place exists is to be a breeding center so our job is to produce cheetah babies and make sure every institution in the SSP has the animals that they need. That really is the job that we are cast to do.